The Fraternity Men I Thought I Knew (May)

In May 2019, the Rights Writers discussed what perspectives have been left out of the major debates on their topics and how including them increase understanding or contribute to progress of the issue.

The concept was simple enough. Earlier in the year, I had performed a monologue about a survivor dealing with mental illness and new relationships in the aftermath of her sexual assault. Now, I was being asked to perform that monologue in front of chapters of fraternities at my university. The idea was to get fraternity men to understand a little more about what it’s really like to survive sexual assault, in order to create enough empathy to have honest, productive conversations about consent, sexual violence, and university culture.

If I’m being honest, I wasn’t sure that it would work.

Despite my doubts, I said yes. Come March, I stood at the front of a dimly lit lecture hall, trembling as seventy pairs of eyes locked on me. I wasn’t nervous or dealing with stage fright. I was terrified. What had I been thinking—coming into a space dominated by mostly white males and expecting them to take me seriously?  My leg started shaking so badly, I worried I might fall over.

Thankfully, months of rehearsal had converted my monologue to muscle memory. I opened my mouth and let the words fall out. As I spoke the final words of the piece, written anonymously by a woman attending my university, I noticed that the sighs and fidgeting that filled the room at the beginning of my performance had stopped. “I’ve welcomed the feeling of being alive every day since.” The last line hung in the air. The pause that followed felt deafening. Finally, mercifully, applause.

Sonali Mehta Monologue

The conversation that ensued was astonishing. At my university, 48% of undergraduate women report sexual assault at some point over their four years. Quickly, the men realized that meant they must all know survivors—whether those individuals choose to disclose their experiences of sexual violence or not. They realized that they have ultimate control over the culture and values of their organization. They realized that it was their responsibility to ensure that the social spaces they created were as safe as possible. As we left the men thanked us repeatedly, saying things like “I can’t believe I didn’t know that” and “I’m so glad you guys came in today”.

I’ve spent the majority of my college career working on sexual violence prevention at my university. All along, I implicitly viewed men, fraternity men, as the enemy. I had heard far too many stories of crimes perpetrated by men at parties held by fraternities. I knew far too many women who had been transformed into survivors after bad nights out. A study published by psychologist Rita Seabrook in Violence Against Women suggests that sexual violence may be “reinforced among fraternity members as they are both more likely to perpetrate sexual assault and less likely to be blamed”. I didn’t hate these men; in many cases, I was scared of them.

Many prevention efforts in higher education reflect the same sentiment, targeting fraternity members as potential perpetrators. However, the efficacy of such efforts have not been demonstrated. Part of the reason prevention efforts have failed may be that they pit men and women against one another, women as victims and men as perpetrators. However, viewing fraternity men monolithically as the problem or refusing to consider them as part of the solution is to the detriment of everyone involved. Instead, prevention efforts should reframe their approach: bring men into the conversations by affirming their willingness and ability to create positive change, and acknowledging that many men are survivors themselves.

At one meeting, a senior spoke up in front of the rest of the group. “We set the culture of this organization. The upperclassmen create the culture and the identity of this group, we decide if certain behaviors are acceptable or not. It’s up to us to teach freshman who we are and what we do. We have to make sure we’re teaching them the right things.”

Universities are slow to introduce change; governments even slower. By contrast, culture can change with the wind, with the concentrated efforts of those who seek to change it. Preventing sexual violence—imagining a world in which sexual violence does not exist—is more complex than changing policy or redefining consent. That work requires honest conversations. It requires us to reckon with the people and spaces we love, and to interrogate if those things are truly safe. Why not allow fraternity men to take responsibility for the spaces they control and encourage them to make those spaces safer? Instead of working against each other, why not work together?

Sonali Mehta is a junior studying Public Policy and Human Rights. She is an advocate for the use of restorative justice in university cases of sexual violence. Sonali has been involved with Kenan since participating in Project Change her freshman year, later participating in the Kenan FOCUS and as a member of Team Kenan. She enjoys photography, drinking tea, eating hummus, and re-reading Harry Potter.

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